AFTER A YEAR.
The first year of George Talboys' widowhood passed away, the deep band of crepe about his hat grew brown and dusty, and as the last burning day of another August faded out, he sat smoking cigars in the quiet chambers of Figtree Court, much as he had done the year before, when the horror of his grief was new to him, and every object in life, however trifling or however important, seemed saturated with his one great sorrow.
But the big ex-dragoon had survived his affliction by a twelvemonth, and hard as it may be to have to tell it, he did not look much the worse for it. Heaven knows what wasted agonies of remorse and self-reproach may not have racked George's honest heart, as he lay awake at nights thinking of the wife he had abandoned in the pursuit of a fortune, which she never lived to share.
Once, while they were abroad, Robert Audley ventured to congratulate him upon his recovered spirits. He burst into a bitter laugh.
"Do you know, Bob," he said, "that when some of our fellows were wounded in India, they came home, bringing bullets inside them. They did not talk of them, and they were stout and hearty, and looked as well, perhaps, as you or I; but every change in the weather, however slight, every variation of the atmosphere, however trifling, brought back the old agony of their wounds as sharp as ever they had felt it on the battle-field. I've had my wound, Bob; I carry the bullet still, and I shall carry it into my coffin."
The travelers returned from St. Petersburg in the spring, and George again took up his quarters at his old friend's chambers, only leaving them now and then to run down to Southampton and take a look at his little boy. He always went loaded with toys and sweetmeats to give to the child; but, for all this, Georgey would not become very familiar with his papa, and the young man's heart sickened as he began to fancy that even his child was lost to him.
"What can I do?" he thought. "If I take him away from his grandfather, I shall break his heart; if I let him remain, he will grow up a stranger to me, and care more for that drunken old hypocrite than for his own father. But then, what could an ignorant, heavy dragoon like me do with such a child? What could I teach him, except to smoke cigars and idle around all day with his hands in his pockets?"
So the anniversary of that 30th of August, upon which George had seen the advertisement of his wife's death in the _Times_ newspaper, came round for the first time, and the young man put off his black clothes and the shabby crape from his hat, and laid his mournful garments in a trunk in which he kept a packet of his wife's letters, her portrait, and that lock of hair which had been cut from her head after death. Robert Audley had never seen either the letters, the portrait, or the long tress of silky hair; nor, indeed, had George ever mentioned the name of his dead wife after that one day at Ventnor, on which he learned the full particulars of her decease.
"I shall write to my cousin Alicia to-day, George," the young barrister said, upon this very 30th of August. "Do you know that the day after to-morrow is the 1st of September? I shall write and tell her that we will both run down to the Court for a week's shooting."
"No, no, Bob; go by yourself; they don't want me, and I'd rather--"
"Bury yourself in Figtree Court, with no company but my dogs and canaries! No, George, you shall do nothing of the kind."
"But I don't care for shooting."
"And do you suppose _I_ care for it?" cried Robert, with charming _naivete_. "Why, man, I don't know a partridge from a pigeon, and it might be the 1st of April, instead of the 1st of September, for aught I care. I never hurt a bird in my life, but I have hurt my own shoulder with the weight of my gun. I only go down to Essex for the change of air, the good dinners, and the sight of my uncle's honest, handsome face. Besides, this time I've another inducement, as I want to see this fair-haired paragon--my new aunt. You'll go with me, George?"
"Yes, if you really wish it."
The quiet form his grief had taken after its first brief violence, left him as submissive as a child to the will of his friend; ready to go anywhere or do anything; never enjoying himself, or originating any enjoyment, but joining in the pleasures of others with a hopeless, uncomplaining, unobtrusive resignation peculiar to his simple nature. But the return of post brought a letter from Alicia Audley, to say that the two young men could not be received at the Court.
"There are seventeen spare bed-rooms," wrote the young lady, in an indignant running hand, "but for all that, my dear Robert, you can't come; for my lady has taken it into her silly head that she is too ill to entertain visitors (there is no more the matter with her than there is with me), and she cannot have gentlemen (great, rough men, she says) in the house. Please apologize to your friend Mr. Talboys, and tell him that papa expects to see you both in the hunting season."
"My lady's airs and graces shan't keep us out of Essex for all that," said Robert, as he twisted the letter into a pipe-light for his big meerschaum. "I'll tell you what we'll do, George: there's a glorious inn at Audley, and plenty of fishing in the neighborhood; we'll go there and have a week's sport. Fishing is much better than shooting; you've only to lie on a bank and stare at your line; I don't find that you often catch anything, but it's very pleasant."
He held the twisted letter to the feeble spark of fire glimmering in the grate, as he spoke, and then changing his mind, deliberately unfolded it, and smoothed the crumpled paper with his hand.
"Poor little Alicia!" he said, thoughtfully; "it's rather hard to treat her letter so cavalierly--I'll keep it;" upon which Mr. Robert Audley put the note back into its envelope, and afterward thrust it into a pigeon-hole in his office desk, marked _important_. Heaven knows what wonderful documents there were in this particular pigeon-hole, but I do not think it likely to have contained anything of great judicial value. If any one could at that moment have told the young barrister that so simple a thing as his cousin's brief letter would one day come to be a link in that terrible chain of evidence afterward to be slowly forged in the only criminal case in which he was ever to be concerned, perhaps Mr. Robert Audley would have lifted his eyebrows a little higher than usual.
So the two young men left London the next day, with one portmanteau and a rod and tackle between them, and reached the straggling, old-fashioned, fast-decaying village of Audley, in time to order a good dinner at the Sun Inn.
Audley Court was about three-quarters of a mile from the village, lying, as I have said, deep down in the hollow, shut in by luxuriant timber. You could only reach it by a cross-road bordered by trees, and as trimly kept as the avenues in a gentleman's park. It was a lonely place enough, even in all its rustic beauty, for so bright a creature as the late Miss Lucy Graham, but the generous baronet had transformed the interior of the gray old mansion into a little palace for his young wife, and Lady Audley seemed as happy as a child surrounded by new and costly toys.
In her better fortunes, as in her old days of dependence, wherever she went she seemed to take sunshine and gladness with her. In spite of Miss Alicia's undisguised contempt for her step-mother's childishness and frivolity, Lucy was better loved and more admired than the baronet's daughter. That very childishness had a charm which few could resist. The innocence and candor of an infant beamed in Lady Audley's fair face, and shone out of her large and liquid blue eyes. The rosy lips, the delicate nose, the profusion of fair ringlets, all contributed to preserve to her beauty the character of extreme youth and freshness. She owned to twenty years of age, but it was hard to believe her more than seventeen. Her fragile figure, which she loved to dress in heavy velvets, and stiff, rustling silks, till she looked like a child tricked out for a masquerade, was as girlish as if she had just left the nursery. All her amusements were childish. She hated reading, or study of any kind, and loved society. Rather than be alone, she would admit Phoebe Marks into her confidence, and loll on one of the sofas in her luxurious dressing-room, discussing a new costume for some coming dinner-party; or sit chattering to the girl with her jewel-box beside her, upon the satin cushions, and Sir Michael's presents spread out in her lap, while she counted and admired her treasures.
She had appeared at several public balls at Chelmsford and Colchester, and was immediately established as the belle of the county. Pleased with her high position and her handsome house; with every caprice gratified, every whim indulged; admired and caressed wherever she went; fond of her generous husband; rich in a noble allowance of pin-money; with no poor relations to worry her with claims upon her purse or patronage; it would have been hard to find in the County of Essex a more fortunate creature than Lucy, Lady Audley.
The two young men loitered over the dinner-table in the private sitting-room at the Sun Inn. The windows were thrown wide open, and the fresh country air blew in upon them as they dined. The weather was lovely; the foliage of the woods touched here and there with faint gleams of the earliest tints of autumn; the yellow corn still standing in some of the fields, in others just falling under the shining sickle; while in the narrow lanes you met great wagons drawn by broad-chested cart-horses, carrying home the rich golden store. To any one who has been, during the hot summer months, pent up in London, there is in the first taste of rustic life a kind of sensuous rapture scarcely to be described. George Talboys felt this, and in this he experienced the nearest approach to enjoyment that he had ever known since his wife's death.
The clock struck five as they finished dinner.
"Put on your hat, George," said Robert Audley; "they don't dine at the Court till seven; we shall have time to stroll down and see the old place and its inhabitants."
The landlord, who had come into the room with a bottle of wine, looked up as the young man spoke.
"I beg your pardon, Mr. Audley," he said, "but if you want to see your uncle, you'll lose your time by going to the Court just now. Sir Michael and my lady and Miss Alicia have all gone to the races up at Chorley, and they won't be back till nigh upon eight o'clock, most likely. They must pass by here to go home."
Under these circumstances of course it was no use going to the Court, so the two young men strolled through the village and looked at the old church, and then went and reconnoitered the streams in which they were to fish the next day, and by such means beguiled the time until after seven o'clock. At about a quarter past that hour they returned to the inn, and seating themselves in the open window, lit their cigars and looked out at the peaceful prospect.
We hear every day of murders committed in the country. Brutal and treacherous murders; slow, protracted agonies from poisons administered by some kindred hand; sudden and violent deaths by cruel blows, inflicted with a stake cut from some spreading oak, whose every shadow promised--peace. In the county of which I write, I have been shown a meadow in which, on a quiet summer Sunday evening, a young farmer murdered the girl who had loved and trusted him; and yet, even now, with the stain of that foul deed upon it, the aspect of the spot is--peace. No species of crime has ever been committed in the worst rookeries about Seven Dials that has not been also done in the face of that rustic calm which still, in spite of all, we look on with a tender, half-mournful yearning, and associate with--peace.
It was dusk when gigs and chaises, dog-carts and clumsy farmers' phaetons, began to rattle through the village street, and under the windows of the Sun Inn; deeper dusk still when an open carriage and four drew suddenly up beneath the rocking sign-post.
It was Sir Michael Audley's barouche which came to so sudden a stop before the little inn. The harness of one of the leaders had become out of order, and the foremost postillion dismounted to set it right.
"Why, it's my uncle," cried Robert Audley, as the carriage stopped. "I'll run down and speak to him."
George lit another cigar, and, sheltered by the window-curtains, looked out at the little party. Alicia sat with her back to the horses, and he could perceive, even in the dusk, that she was a handsome brunette; but Lady Audley was seated on the side of the carriage furthest from the inn, and he could see nothing of the fair-haired paragon of whom he had heard so much.
"Why, Robert," exclaimed Sir Michael, as his nephew emerged from the inn, "this is a surprise!"
"I have not come to intrude upon you at the Court, my dear uncle," said the young man, as the baronet shook him by the hand in his own hearty fashion. "Essex is my native county, you know, and about this time of year I generally have a touch of homesickness; so George and I have come down to the inn for two or three day's fishing."
"What, has he come?" cried Alicia. "I'm so glad; for I'm dying to see this handsome young widower."
"Are you, Alicia?" said her cousin, "Then egad, I'll run and fetch him, and introduce you to him at once."
Now, so complete was the dominion which Lady Audley had, in her own childish, unthinking way, obtained over her devoted husband, that it was very rarely that the baronet's eyes were long removed from his wife's pretty face. When Robert, therefore, was about to re-enter the inn, it needed but the faintest elevation of Lucy's eyebrows, with a charming expression of weariness and terror, to make her husband aware that she did not want to be bored by an introduction to Mr. George Talboys.
"Never mind to-night, Bob," he said. "My wife is a little tired after our long day's pleasure. Bring your friend to dinner to-morrow, and then he and Alicia can make each other's acquaintance. Come round and speak to Lady Audley, and then we'll drive home."
My lady was so terribly fatigued that she could only smile sweetly, and hold out a tiny gloved hand to her nephew by marriage.
"You will come and dine with us to-morrow, and bring your interesting friend?" she said, in a low and tired voice. She had been the chief attraction of the race-course, and was wearied out by the exertion of fascinating half the county.
"It's a wonder she didn't treat you to her never-ending laugh," whispered Alicia, as she leaned over the carriage-door to bid Robert good-night; "but I dare say she reserves that for your delectation to-morrow. I suppose _you_ are fascinated as well as everybody else?" added the young lady, rather snappishly.
"She is a lovely creature, certainly," murmured Robert, with placid admiration.
"Oh, of course! Now, she is the first woman of whom I ever heard you say a civil word, Robert Audley. I'm sorry to find you can only admire wax dolls."
Poor Alicia had had many skirmishes with her cousin upon that particular temperament of his, which, while it enabled him to go through life with perfect content and tacit enjoyment, entirely precluded his feeling one spark of enthusiasm upon any subject whatever.
"As to his ever falling in love," thought the young lady sometimes, "the idea is preposterous. If all the divinities on earth were ranged before him, waiting for his sultanship to throw the handkerchief, he would only lift his eyebrows to the middle of his forehead, and tell them to scramble for it."
But, for once in his life, Robert was almost enthusiastic.
"She's the prettiest little creature you ever saw in your life, George," he cried, when the carriage had driven off and he returned to his friend. "Such blue eyes, such ringlets, such a ravishing smile, such a fairy-like bonnet--all of a-tremble with heart's-ease and dewy spangles, shining out of a cloud of gauze. George Talboys, I feel like the hero of a French novel: I am falling in love with my aunt."
The widower only sighed and puffed his cigar fiercely out of the open window. Perhaps he was thinking of that far-away time--little better than five years ago, in fact; but such an age gone by to him--when he first met the woman for whom he had worn crape round his hat three days before. They returned, all those old unforgotten feelings; they came back, with the scene of their birth-place. Again he lounged with his brother officers upon the shabby pier at the shabby watering-place, listening to a dreary band with a cornet that was a note and a half flat. Again he heard the old operatic airs, and again _she_ came tripping toward him, leaning on her old father's arm, and pretending (with such a charming, delicious, serio-comic pretense) to be listening to the music, and quite unaware of the admiration of half a dozen open-mouthed cavalry officers. Again the old fancy came back that she was something too beautiful for earth, or earthly uses, and that to approach her was to walk in a higher atmosphere and to breathe a purer air. And since this she had been his wife, and the mother of his child. She lay in the little churchyard at Ventnor, and only a year ago he had given the order for her tombstone. A few slow, silent tears dropped upon his waistcoat as he thought of these things in the quiet and darkening room.
Lady Audley was so exhausted when she reached home, that she excused herself from the dinner-table, and retired at once to her dressing-room, attended by her maid, Phoebe Marks.
She was a little capricious in her conduct to this maid--sometimes very confidential, sometimes rather reserved; but she was a liberal mistress, and the girl had every reason to be satisfied with her situation.
This evening, in spite of her fatigue, she was in extremely high spirits, and gave an animated account of the races, and the company present at them.
"I am tired to death, though, Phoebe," she said, by-and-by. "I am afraid I must look a perfect fright, after a day in the hot sun."
There were lighted candles on each side of the glass before which Lady Audley was standing unfastening her dress. She looked full at her maid as she spoke, her blue eyes clear and bright, and the rosy childish lips puckered into an arch smile.
"You are a little pale, my lady," answered the girl, "but you look as pretty as ever."
"That's right, Phoebe," she said, flinging herself into a chair, and throwing back her curls at the maid, who stood, brush in hand, ready to arrange the luxuriant hair for the night. "Do you know, Phoebe, I have heard some people say that you and I are alike?"
"I have heard them say so, too, my lady," said the girl, quietly "but they must be very stupid to say it, for your ladyship is a beauty, and I am a poor, plain creature."
"Not at all, Phoebe," said the little lady, superbly; "you _are_ like me, and your features are very nice; it is only color that you want. My hair is pale yellow shot with gold, and yours is drab; my eyebrows and eyelashes are dark brown, and yours are almost--I scarcely like to say it, but they're almost white, my dear Phoebe. Your complexion is sallow, and mine is pink and rosy. Why, with a bottle of hair-dye, such as we see advertised in the papers, and a pot of rouge, you'd be as good-looking as I, any day, Phoebe."
She prattled on in this way for a long time, talking of a hundred different subjects, and ridiculing the people she had met at the races, for her maid's amusement. Her step-daughter came into the dressing-room to bid her good-night, and found the maid and mistress laughing aloud over one of the day's adventures. Alicia, who was never familiar with her servants, withdrew in disgust at my lady's frivolity.
"Go on brushing my hair, Phoebe," Lady Audley said, every time the girl was about to complete her task, "I quite enjoy a chat with you."
At last, just as she had dismissed her maid, she suddenly called her back. "Phoebe Marks," she said, "I want you to do me a favor."
"Yes, my lady."
"I want you to go to London by the first train to-morrow morning to execute a little commission for me. You may take a day's holiday afterward, as I know you have friends in town; and I shall give you a five-pound note if you do what I want, and keep your own counsel about it."
"Yes, my lady."
"See that that door is securely shut, and come and sit on this stool at my feet."
The girl obeyed. Lady Audley smoothed her maid's neutral-tinted hair with her plump, white, and bejeweled hand as she reflected for a few moments.
"And now listen, Phoebe. What I want you to do is very simple."
It was so simple that it was told in five minutes, and then Lady Audley retired into her bed-room, and curled herself up cozily under the eider-down quilt. She was a chilly creature, and loved to bury herself in soft wrappings of satin and fur.
"Kiss me, Phoebe," she said, as the girl arranged the curtains. "I hear Sir Michael's step in the anteroom; you will meet him as you go out, and you may as well tell him that you are going up by the first train to-morrow morning to get my dress from Madam Frederick for the dinner at Morton Abbey."
It was late the next morning when Lady Audley went down to breakfast--past ten o'clock. While she was sipping her coffee a servant brought her a sealed packet, and a book for her to sign.
"A telegraphic message!" she cried; for the convenient word telegram had not yet been invented. "What can be the matter?"
She looked up at her husband with wide-open, terrified eyes, and seemed half afraid to break the seal. The envelope was addressed to Miss Lucy Graham, at Mr. Dawson's, and had been sent on from the village.
"Read it, my darling," he said, "and do not be alarmed; it may be nothing of any importance."
It came from a Mrs. Vincent, the schoolmistress with whom she had lived before entering Mr. Dawson's family. The lady was dangerously ill, and implored her old pupil to go and see her.
"Poor soul! she always meant to leave me her money," said Lucy, with a mournful smile. "She has never heard of the change in my fortunes. Dear Sir Michael, I must go to her."
"To be sure you must, dearest. If she was kind to my poor girl in her adversity, she has a claim upon her prosperity that shall never be forgotten. Put on your bonnet, Lucy; we shall be in time to catch the express."
"You will go with me?"
"Of course, my darling. Do you suppose I would let you go alone?"
"I was sure you would go with me," she said, thoughtfully.
"Does your friend send any address?"
"No; but she always lived at Crescent Villa, West Brompton; and no doubt she lives there still."
There was only time for Lady Audley to hurry on her bonnet and shawl before she heard the carriage drive round to the door, and Sir Michael calling to her at the foot of the staircase.
Her suite of rooms, as I have said, opened one out of another, and terminated in an octagon antechamber hung with oil-paintings. Even in her haste she paused deliberately at the door of this room, double-locked it, and dropped the key into her pocket. This door once locked cut off all access to my lady's apartments.
BEFORE THE STORM.
So the dinner at Audley Court was postponed, and Miss Alicia had to wait still longer for an introduction to the handsome young widower, Mr. George Talboys.
I am afraid, if the real truth is to be told, there was, perhaps, something of affectation in the anxiety this young lady expressed to make George's acquaintance; but if poor Alicia for a moment calculated upon arousing any latent spark of jealousy lurking in her cousin's breast by this exhibition of interest, she was not so well acquainted with Robert Audley's disposition as she might have been. Indolent, handsome, and indifferent, the young barrister took life as altogether too absurd a mistake for any one event in its foolish course to be for a moment considered seriously by a sensible man.
His pretty, gipsy-faced cousin might have been over head and ears in love with him; and she might have told him so, in some charming, roundabout, womanly fashion, a hundred times a day for all the three hundred and sixty-five days in the year; but unless she had waited for some privileged 29th of February, and walked straight up to him, saying, "Robert, please will you marry me?" I very much doubt if he would ever have discovered the state of her feelings.
Again, had he been in love with her himself, I fancy that the tender passion would, with him, have been so vague and feeble a sentiment that he might have gone down to his grave with a dim sense of some uneasy sensation which might be love or indigestion, and with, beyond this, no knowledge whatever of his state.
So it was not the least use, my poor Alicia, to ride about the lanes around Audley during those three days which the two young men spent in Essex; it was wasted trouble to wear that pretty cavalier hat and plume, and to be always, by the most singular of chances, meeting Robert and his friend. The black curls (nothing like Lady Audley's feathery ringlets, but heavy clustering locks, that clung about your slender brown throat), the red and pouting lips, the nose inclined to be _retrousse_, the dark complexion, with its bright crimson flush, always ready to glance up like a signal light in a dusky sky, when you came suddenly upon your apathetic cousin--all this coquettish _espiegle_, brunette beauty was thrown away upon the dull eyes of Robert Audley, and you might as well have taken your rest in the cool drawing-room at the Court, instead of working your pretty mare to death under the hot September sun.
Now fishing, except to the devoted disciple of Izaak Walton, is not the most lively of occupations; therefore, it is scarcely, perhaps, to be wondered that on the day after Lady Audley's departure, the two young men (one of whom was disabled by that heart wound which he bore so quietly, from really taking pleasure in anything, and the other of whom looked upon almost all pleasure as a negative kind of trouble) began to grow weary of the shade of the willows overhanging the winding streams about Audley.
"Figtree Court is not gay in the long vacation," said Robert, reflectively: "but I think, upon the whole, it's better than this; at any rate, it's near a tobacconist's," he added, puffing resignedly at an execrable cigar procured from the landlord of the Sun Inn.
George Talboys, who had only consented to the Essex expedition in passive submission to his friend, was by no means inclined to object to their immediate return to London. "I shall be glad to get back, Bob," he said, "for I want to take a run down to Southampton; I haven't seen the little one for upward of a month."
He always spoke of his son as "the little one;" always spoke of him mournfully rather than hopefully. He accounted for this by saying that he had a fancy that the child would never learn to love him; and worse even than this fancy, a dim presentiment that he would not live to see his little Georgey reach manhood.
"I'm not a romantic man, Bob," he would say sometimes, "and I never read a line of poetry in my life that was any more to me than so many words and so much jingle; but a feeling has come over me, since my wife's death, that I am like a man standing upon a long, low shore, with hideous cliffs frowning down upon him from behind, and the rising tide crawling slowly but surely about his feet. It seems to grow nearer and nearer every day, that black, pitiless tide; not rushing upon me with a great noise and a mighty impetus, but crawling, creeping, stealing, gliding toward me, ready to close in above my head when I am least prepared for the end."
Robert Audley stared at his friend in silent amazement; and, after a pause of profound deliberation, said solemnly, "George Talboys, I could understand this if you had been eating heavy suppers. Cold pork, now, especially if underdone, might produce this sort of thing. You want change of air, my dear boy; you want the refreshing breezes of Figtree Court, and the soothing air of Fleet street. Or, stay," he added, suddenly, "I have it! You've been smoking our friend the landlord's cigars; that accounts for everything."
They met Alicia Audley on her mare about half an hour after they had come to the determination of leaving Essex early the next morning. The young lady was very much surprised and disappointed at hearing her cousin's determination, and for that very reason pretended to take the matter with supreme indifference.
"You are very soon tired of Audley, Robert," she said, carelessly; "but of course you have no friends here, except your relations at the Court; while in London, no doubt, you have the most delightful society and--"
"I get good tobacco," murmured Robert, interrupting his cousin. "Audley is the dearest old place, but when a man has to smoke dried cabbage leaves, you know, Alicia--"
"Then you are really going to-morrow morning?"
"Positively--by the express train that leaves at 10.50."
"Then Lady Audley will lose an introduction to Mr. Talboys, and Mr. Talboys will lose the chance of seeing the prettiest woman in Essex."
"Really--" stammered George.
"The prettiest woman in Essex would have a poor chance of getting much admiration out of my friend, George Talboys," said Robert. "His heart is at Southampton, where he has a curly-headed little urchin, about as high as his knee, who calls him 'the big gentleman,' and asks him for sugar-plums."
"I am going to write to my step-mother by to-night's post," said Alicia. "She asked me particularly in her letter how long you were going to stop, and whether there was any chance of her being back in time to
Miss Audley took a letter from the pocket of her riding-jacket as she spoke--a pretty, fairy-like note, written on shining paper of a peculiar creamy hue.
"She says in her postcript, 'Be sure you answer my question about Mr. Audley and his friend, you volatile, forgetful Alicia!'"
"What a pretty hand she writes!" said Robert, as his cousin folded the note.
"Yes, it is pretty, is it not? Look at it, Robert."
She put the letter into his hand, and he contemplated it lazily for a few minutes, while Alicia patted the graceful neck of her chestnut mare, which was anxious to be off once more.
"Presently, Atalanta, presently. Give me back my note, Bob."
"It is the prettiest, most coquettish little hand I ever saw. Do you know, Alicia, I have no great belief in those fellows who ask you for thirteen postage stamps, and offer to tell you what you have never been able to find out yourself; but upon my word I think that if I had never seen your aunt, I should know what she was like by this slip of paper. Yes, here it all is--the feathery, gold-shot, flaxen curls, the penciled eyebrows, the tiny, straight nose, the winning, childish smile; all to be guessed in these few graceful up-strokes and down-strokes. George, look here!"
But absent-minded and gloomy George Talboys had strolled away along the margin of the ditch, and stood striking the bulrushes with his cane, half a dozen paces away from Robert and Alicia.
"Nevermind," said the young lady, impatiently; for she by no means relished this long disquisition upon my lady's note. "Give me the letter, and let me go; it's past eight, and I must answer it by to-night's post. Come, Atalanta! Good-by, Robert--good-by, Mr. Talboys. A pleasant journey to town."
The chestnut mare cantered briskly through the lane, and Miss Audley was out of sight before those two big, bright tears that stood in her eyes for one moment, before her pride sent them, back again, rose from her angry heart.
"To have only one cousin in the world," she cried, passionately, "my nearest relation after papa, and for him to care about as much for me as he would for a dog!"
By the merest of accidents, however, Robert and his friend did not go by the 10.50 express on the following morning, for the young barrister awoke with such a splitting headache, that he asked George to send him a cup of the strongest green tea that had ever been made at the Sun, and to be furthermore so good as to defer their journey until the next day. Of course George assented, and Robert Audley spent the forenoon in a darkened room with a five-days'-old Chelmsford paper to entertain himself withal.
"It's nothing but the cigars, George," he said, repeatedly. "Get me out of the place without my seeing the landlord; for if that man and I meet there will be bloodshed."
Fortunately for the peace of Audley, it happened to be market-day at Chelmsford; and the worthy landlord had ridden off in his chaise-cart to purchase supplies for his house--among other things, perhaps, a fresh stock of those very cigars which had been so fatal in their effect upon Robert.
The young men spent a dull, dawdling, stupid, unprofitable day; and toward dusk Mr. Audley proposed that they should stroll down to the Court, and ask Alicia to take them over the house.
"It will kill a couple of hours, you know, George: and it seems a great pity to drag you away from Audley without having shown you the old place, which, I give you my honor, is very well worth seeing."
The sun was low in the skies as they took a short cut through the meadows, and crossed a stile into the avenue leading to the archway--a lurid, heavy-looking, ominous sunset, and a deathly stillness in the air, which frightened the birds that had a mind to sing, and left the field open to a few captious frogs croaking in the ditches. Still as the atmosphere was, the leaves rustled with that sinister, shivering motion which proceeds from no outer cause, but is rather an instinctive shudder of the frail branches, prescient of a coming storm. That stupid clock, which knew no middle course, and always skipped from one hour to the other, pointed to seven as the young men passed under the archway; but, for all that, it was nearer eight.
They found Alicia in the lime-walk, wandering listlessly up and down under the black shadow of the trees, from which every now and then a withered leaf flapped slowly to the ground.
Strange to say, George Talboys, who very seldom observed anything, took particular notice of this place.
"It ought to be an avenue in a churchyard," he said. "How peacefully the dead might sleep under this somber shade! I wish the churchyard at Ventnor was like this."
They walked on to the ruined well; and Alicia told them some old legend connected with the spot--some gloomy story, such as those always attached to an old house, as if the past were one dark page of sorrow and crime.
"We want to see the house before it is dark, Alicia," said Robert.
"Then we must be quick." she answered. "Come."
She led the way through an open French window, modernized a few years before, into the library, and thence to the hall.
In the hall they passed my lady's pale-faced maid, who looked furtively under her white eyelashes at the two young men.
They were going up-stairs, when Alicia turned and spoke to the girl.
"After we have been in the drawing-room, I should like to show these gentlemen Lady Audley's rooms. Are they in good order, Phoebe?"
"Yes, miss; but the door of the anteroom is locked, and I fancy that my lady has taken the key to London."
"Taken the key! Impossible!" cried Alicia.
"Indeed, miss, I think she has. I cannot find it, and it always used to be in the door."
"I declare," said Alicia, impatiently, "that is not at all unlike my lady to have taken this silly freak into her head. I dare say she was afraid we should go into her rooms, and pry about among her pretty dresses, and meddle with her jewelry. It is very provoking, for the best pictures in the house are in that antechamber. There is her own portrait, too, unfinished but wonderfully like."
"Her portrait!" exclaimed Robert Audley. "I would give anything to see it, for I have only an imperfect notion of her face. Is there no other way of getting into the room, Alicia?"
"Yes; is there any door, leading through some of the other rooms, by which we can contrive to get into hers?"
His cousin shook her head, and conducted them into a corridor where there were some family portraits. She showed them a tapestried chamber, the large figures upon the faded canvas looking threatening in the dusky light.
"That fellow with the battle-ax looks as if he wanted to split George's head open," said Mr. Audley, pointing to a fierce warrior, whose uplifted arm appeared above George Talboys' dark hair.
"Come out of this room, Alicia," added the young man, nervously; "I believe it's damp, or else haunted. Indeed, I believe all ghosts to be the result of damp or dyspepsia. You sleep in a damp bed--you awake suddenly in the dead of the night with a cold shiver, and see an old lady in the court costume of George the First's time, sitting at the foot of the bed. The old lady's indigestion, and the cold shiver is a damp sheet."
There were lighted candles in the drawing-room. No new-fangled lamps had ever made their appearance at Audley Court. Sir Michael's rooms were lighted by honest, thick, yellow-looking wax candles, in massive silver candlesticks, and in sconces against the walls.
There was very little to see in the drawing-room; and George Talboys soon grew tired of staring at the handsome modern furniture, and at a few pictures of some of the Academicians.
"Isn't there a secret passage, or an old oak chest, or something of that kind, somewhere about the place, Alicia?" asked Robert.
"To be sure!" cried Miss Audley, with a vehemence that startled her cousin; "of course. Why didn't I think of it before? How stupid of me, to be sure!"
"Because, if you don't mind crawling upon your hands and knees, you can see my lady's apartments, for that passage communicates with her dressing-room. She doesn't know of it herself, I believe. How astonished she'd be if some black-visored burglar, with a dark-lantern, were to rise through the floor some night as she sat before her looking-glass, having her hair dressed for a party!"
"Shall we try the secret passage, George?" asked Mr. Audley.
"Yes, if you wish it."
Alicia led them into the room which had once been her nursery. It was now disused, except on very rare occasions when the house was full of company.
Robert Audley lifted a corner of the carpet, according to his cousin's directions, and disclosed a rudely-cut trap-door in the oak flooring.
"Now listen to me," said Alicia. "You must let yourself down by the hands into the passage, which is about four feet high; stoop your head, walk straight along it till you come to a sharp turn which will take you to the left, and at the extreme end of it you will find a short ladder below a trap-door like this, which you will have to unbolt; that door opens into the flooring of my lady's dressing-room, which is only covered with a square Persian carpet that you can easily manage to raise. You understand me?"
"Then take the light; Mr. Talboys will follow you. I give you twenty minutes for your inspection of the paintings--that is, about a minute apiece--and at the end of that time I shall expect to see you return."
Robert obeyed her implicitly, and George submissively following his friend, found himself, in five minutes, standing amidst the elegant disorder of Lady Audley's dressing-room.
She had left the house in a hurry on her unlooked-for journey to London, and the whole of her glittering toilette apparatus lay about on the marble dressing-table. The atmosphere of the room was almost oppressive for the rich odors of perfumes in bottles whose gold stoppers had not been replaced. A bunch of hot-house flowers was withering upon a tiny writing-table. Two or three handsome dresses lay in a heap upon the ground, and the open doors of a wardrobe revealed the treasures within. Jewelry, ivory-backed hair-brushes, and exquisite china were scattered here and there about the apartment. George Talboys saw his bearded face and tall, gaunt figure reflected in the glass, and wondered to see how out of place he seemed among all these womanly luxuries.
They went from the dressing-room to the boudoir, and through the boudoir into the ante-chamber, in which there were, as Alicia had said, about twenty valuable paintings, besides my lady's portrait.
My lady's portrait stood on an easel, covered with a green baize in the center of the octagonal chamber. It had been a fancy of the artist to paint her standing in this very room, and to make his background a faithful reproduction of the pictured walls. I am afraid the young man belonged to the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, for he had spent a most unconscionable time upon the accessories of this picture--upon my lady's crispy ringlets and the heavy folds of her crimson velvet dress.
The two young men looked at the paintings on the walls first, leaving this unfinished portrait for a _bonne bouche_.
By this time it was dark, the candle carried by Robert only making one nucleus of light as he moved about holding it before the pictures one by one. The broad, bare window looked out upon the pale sky, tinged with the last cold flicker of the twilight. The ivy rustled against the glass with the same ominous shiver as that which agitated every leaf in the garden, prophetic of the storm that was to come.
"There are our friend's eternal white horses," said Robert, standing beside a Wouvermans. "Nicholas Poussin--Salvator--ha--hum! Now for the portrait."
He paused with his hand on the baize, and solemnly addressed his friend.
"George Talboys," he said, "we have between us only one wax candle, a very inadequate light with which to look at a painting. Let me, therefore, request that you will suffer us to look at it one at a time; if there is one thing more disagreeable than another, it is to have a person dodging behind your back and peering over your shoulder, when you're trying to see what a picture's made of."
George fell back immediately. He took no more interest in any lady's picture than in all the other wearinesses of this troublesome world. He fell back, and leaning his forehead against the window-panes, looked out at the night.
When he turned round he saw that Robert had arranged the easel very conveniently, and that he had seated himself on a chair before it for the purpose of contemplating the painting at his leisure.
He rose as George turned round.
"Now, then, for your turn, Talboys," he said. "It's an extraordinary picture."
He took George's place at the window, and George seated himself in the chair before the easel.
Yes, the painter must have been a pre-Raphaelite. No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have painted, hair by hair, those feathery masses of ringlets, with every glimmer of gold, and every shadow of pale brown. No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have so exaggerated every attribute of that delicate face as to give a lurid brightness to the blonde complexion, and a strange, sinister light to the deep blue eyes. No one but a pre-Raphaelite could have given to that pretty pouting mouth the hard and almost wicked look it had in the portrait.
It was so like, and yet so unlike. It was as if you had burned strange-colored fires before my lady's face, and by their influence brought out new lines and new expressions never seen in it before. The perfection of feature, the brilliancy of coloring, were there; but I suppose the painter had copied quaint mediaeval monstrosities until his brain had grown bewildered, for my lady, in his portrait of her, had something of the aspect of a beautiful fiend.
Her crimson dress, exaggerated like all the rest in this strange picture, hung about her in folds that looked like flames, her fair head peeping out of the lurid mass of color as if out of a raging furnace. Indeed the crimson dress, the sunshine on the face, the red gold gleaming in the yellow hair, the ripe scarlet of the pouting lips, the glowing colors of each accessory of the minutely painted background, all combined to render the first effect of the painting by no means an agreeable one.
But strange as the picture was, it could not have made any great impression on George Talboys, for he sat before it for about a quarter of an hour without uttering a word--only staring blankly at the painted canvas, with the candlestick grasped in his strong right hand, and his left arm hanging loosely by his side. He sat so long in this attitude, that Robert turned round at last.
"Why, George, I thought you had gone to sleep!"
"I had almost."
"You've caught a cold from standing in that damp tapestried room. Mark my words, George Talboys, you've caught a cold; you're as hoarse as a raven. But come along."
Robert Audley took the candle from his friend's hand, and crept back through the secret passage, followed by George--very quiet, but scarcely more quiet than usual.
They found Alicia in the nursery waiting for them.
"Well?" she said, interrogatively.
"We managed it capitally. But I don't like the portrait; there's something odd about it."
"There is," said Alicia; "I've a strange fancy on that point. I think that sometimes a painter is in a manner inspired, and is able to see, through the normal expression of the face, another expression that is equally a part of it, though not to be perceived by common eyes. We have never seen my lady look as she does in that picture; but I think that she _could_ look so."
"Alicia," said Robert Audley, imploringly, "don't be German!"
"Don't be German, Alicia, if you love me. The picture is--the picture: and my lady is--my lady. That's my way of taking things, and I'm not metaphysical; don't unsettle me."
He repeated this several times with an air of terror that was perfectly sincere; and then, having borrowed an umbrella in case of being overtaken by the coming storm, left the Court, leading passive George Talboys away with him. The one hand of the stupid clock had skipped to nine by the time they reached the archway; but before they could pass under its shadow they had to step aside to allow a carriage to dash past them. It was a fly from the village, but Lady Audley's fair face peeped out at the window. Dark as it was, she could see the two figures of the young men black against the dusk.
"Who is that?" she asked, putting out her head. "Is it the gardener?"
"No, my dear aunt," said Robert, laughing; "it is your most dutiful nephew."
He and George stopped by the archway while the fly drew up at the door, and the surprised servants came out to welcome their master and mistress.
"I think the storm will hold off to-night," said the baronet looking up at the sky; "but we shall certainly have it tomorrow."